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2023–2024: Jessica Maffia MFA ’24

Untitled (2023) is on view in the Humanities Building lobby.

Jessica Maffia MFA '24
The selected Presidents Award for Public Art project this year highlights the work of Jessica Maffia MFA ’24, a second-year Visual Arts MFA candidate.

On view in the Humanities Lobby to the left of the main entrance, Untitled (2023) uses soil, space, and video projections to invite the community to consider the natural world around them.

Implied Being

Maffia adhered soil taken from the Broadview construction site to a chicken wire armature that’s meant to suggest a sort of “being.” Projected onto the piece are four videos of the artist walking slowly into the Hudson River on a loop, imposing movement onto the object.

“The body, as I’m walking, passes over the mound, and there’s a relationship between the body and the soil.”

Holes cut in the sculpture allow viewers to peer inside and experience two additional looped videos of the full moon at its closest to Earth and a murder of fish crows with flocks of pigeons and gulls circling the skies of uptown Manhattan.

Jessica Maffia MFA '24, Untitled (2023), President's Award for Public Art in the Humanities Lobby

The Inspiration

The piece evolved from a series of installations Maffia made in the past year that involve layering videos.

“Thinking of projections as collaging images, or composing with projections, the series was about cultivating relationship with the land, specifically near where I was born and raised in the city, or the surrounding region,” she says.

The speed of her movement in the videos is purposefully slow, a symbolic fight against “the imposed and oppressive timeline of speed,” she says.

“An important part of appreciating, revering, the natural world is taking the time. And not just with the natural world, with an individual, too—to be present and to slow down in a bodily way.”

The piece also expands on work Maffia had been making on a smaller scale—soil mounds, sometimes mistaken for rocks, that hold a deeper meaning.

“I was thinking of them as little tombstones, because generally my work is not just about personal relationship with the land, but also an awareness of the massive scale of loss,” she says, “holding the wonder and grief of the natural world at the same time.”

Artistic Roots

Maffia spent the last decade teaching literacy and other subjects through the arts to all age levels in the New York City school district. But ever since she graduated from Vassar with a BA in sociology, she strived to be an artist and maintained an ongoing practice. While she had taken many classes over the years, she had the urge to grow her work by earning a degree from an accredited institution.

Before enrolling in the MFA program, she worked mainly in two-dimensions—drawing, collage and mixed media, but shifted quickly, “almost instantly expanding to sculpture, installation, and performance and video,” she says. “Having access to these facilities is extraordinary. And the wealth of knowledge of the professors and of the student body, I’m just leaning into all of this wisdom.”

Allowing the Art

She also no longer plays it safe, instead “really embracing the risk-taking and the not-knowing. Now I’m working in the unknown, and it’s horrifying, but it yields these things that surprise me. So that’s probably a good thing.”

The Untitled project forced her to overcome learning curves inherent in making something entirely new—like moving heavy work you can’t hold in your hands, learning wood shop skills, and relying on technology and its challenges—as well as those resulting from the unexpected obstacles of public art. She first proposed a different piece at another site, derailed by interior building construction. Yet it pushed her into a new direction.

“This is the work I was making, and I proposed it in a different form. And then here it came. It did its own thing; it had its own agenda,” she says. “And now I’m obsessed with little projections hidden in places.”

The experience reflects advice she once received from a mentor.

“You have to relinquish your control and do what the art asks. If you impose your will, then you’re taking away from the possibility of something really great.”

See Untitled in the Humanities Building lobby through spring 2025.

The President’s Award for Public Art offers a stipend to one selected project each year. The annual competition, created by former President Thomas Schwarz, encourages the display of student-made public art on campus.

Jessica Maffia MFA '24, Untitled (2023), President's Award for Public Art in the Humanities Lobby

Jessica Maffia MFA '24, Untitled (2023), President's Award for Public Art in the Humanities Lobby

Jessica Maffia MFA '24, Untitled (2023), President's Award for Public Art in the Humanities Lobby